The dirt. The grass. The rain of the evening.
Her feet and hands made almost no sound as she fell to her knees. Fell and had the wind knocked out of her by the root that shot up out of the ground like it had grown there on purpose to torture unsuspecting travelers.
Her boots were caked with mud and blood. Mirroring her fingers.
She let out a quiet groan as she pushed herself to her feet as best she could.
It was dark.
She should have been somewhere safe.
“Shit,” she murmured to herself, to affirm that she was here. In this moment. As of yet still alive. Still unbitten. Untainted. Healthy.
Though maybe. Maybe. Not for much longer.
She could hear the clicking behind her, following her so relentlessly. Under different circumstances, she might have tried to climb one of the trees around her, but she wasn't sure which one would take her high enough, or whether she would be fast enough with her bruised left arm.
She stumbled again, her arms stretching out to catch herself against a tree before she could sprawl again.
The clicks seemed to reverberate in her chest.
Chk, chk, chk.
Half the speed of her thumping heart.
The third time she tripped, her grip was not steady enough.
A sharp protrusion from the bark sliced a cut into her right cheek, and she let out a gasp of pain as she fell onto already bruised flesh.
This was it, she thought, as she tried to find the strength to get up again. She was bleeding, battered and so, so tired. She didn't want to run anymore. She wanted to feel safe.
Chk, chk, chk.
With the last of her strength, she pushed herself around and scooted against the tree she’d fallen into. Pulling her knife from her belt, she readied herself for the inevitable fight. The clicks were growing closer, and Dina tried to ignore the shaking in her fingers.
She wasn't afraid. She wasn't.
The moonlight barely passed through the trees, and it didn't help her racing heart to feel so utterly blinded.
Then, just as she saw the distorted, malformed face of the clicker pass into a blade of light, she heard something else that made her blood freeze in her veins.
A roar reverberated through the trees.
It made Dina’s ears ring.
Wasn't it bad enough that she had to deal with infected? Did the world have to add whatever animal had made that sound?
She never took her eyes off the clicker.
Maybe that was why she startled when something large and hairy charged at the infected, knocking it to the ground. The two vanished into the darkness, leaving Dina shaking and anxious against the tree.
Was she hallucinating? Had she lost too much blood? Was dehydration playing tricks on her?
“Fuck,” she whispered to herself as she brought her left hand to her right wrist to steady it and the knife. She heard ferocious snarling from the beast and angry squelching noises from the infected. She was shaking all over now, tears gathering in her eyes. When was the last time she’d cried?
She didn't dare close her eyes for fear of what might greet her when she opened them again.
“Fuck,” she whispered again, lowering the knife to her leg.
Why weren't her legs moving? She needed to get up and run while that animal was attacking the clicker. Before it realized that Dina was much more edible and likely far tastier.
But she couldn't get her legs to cooperate.
As the first tear fell, a paw stepped into the beam of moonlight. It glittered with infected blood, its sheer size making Dina’s heart jump into her throat.
Slowly, a head moved into view.
Bear, she thought, it’s a bear.
She’d never seen one in person before, and the ones she’d spotted in old world textbooks had never been described as quite this large. Her mind felt completely blank safe for her realization, and she tried not to breathe as the massive animal looked straight at her. Its face was clear of blood, its expression unreadable. She knew that dogs flattened their ears while on the verge of attack, but she didn’t know if it worked the same for bears.
She was still shaking.
As it stepped closer, Dina let go of her knife, letting it slide to the damp ground. There was simply no way she could defend herself with such a small weapon against a beast of this size. Not if it decided to attack.
With a small sigh, Dina closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable bite to her neck. Or a claw to the face.
She was ready.
Better this than to be infected and become a potential threat to other humans.
Before she could give in to the insane urge to tilt her head back to bare her neck for easier access, she felt something soft and wet on her cheek. It lapped at her gently, and when nothing else happened, Dina slowly opened her eyes. The first thing she noted was that the giant bear had sat down on its ass in front of her and that it had placed its paws next to her legs.
And it was licking at her. More specifically, it was licking at the blood that had trickled along her face from the cut she’d sustained not too long ago.
It should have hurt, maybe, but it didn’t.
All it did was bring fresh tears to her eyes.
She wasn’t dead, but she felt like she should have been. Giant predators in the forest didn’t try to comfort you in times of need. They were there to slaughter you and rip your guts out.
When she let out a shuddering breath, she felt the bear pull back. Maybe now it would finally end her. But again, she was surprised. Instead of laying into her, the bear nudged her hand with its nose. It was cold and wet, and it wouldn’t let up until she lifted her hand to cautiously place it on the bear’s face.
Then, without preamble, it laid down its head on her lap, and gazed up at her.
Its eyes were huge, the irises a deep blue color with a touch of hazel, noticeable even in shallow lighting. Slowly, she allowed her trembling fingers to sift through the thick, rich fur, and the bear blinked. It seemed almost deliberate, and it brought a fresh wave of confusion to Dina’s mind.
When she accidentally touched the bear’s ear, it closed its eyes entirely, and Dina let out a shuddering little breath. How likely was it that it would hurt her now?
With every breath of the animal, warm tufts of air brushed along Dina’s forearm, and her fingers slowly steadied as she continued to rub the bear’s large ear. The forest was freezing at this time of night, and Dina’s body felt as though it was trying to soak up as much warmth from her unlikely companion as it could.
She had no idea what time it was. Recently, the watch on her wrist had ceased to tick, and she hadn't yet found a replacement battery for it. Being chased through the trees had disoriented her. She hadn't even had time to shoulder her backpack when the clicker had stumbled around the corner. The thought finally forced her eyes to spill over.
The only picture she had of her mother had been in there, tucked away safely in Dina’s second pair of jeans.
She flinched when the big head on her lap moved. But again, the bear simply licked across her cheek, catching salty tears. It almost made her laugh, though not because it was funny.
The inherent absurdity of her situation was the thing that finally made her body relax. She didn't sleep, but she allowed the bear to lie back down before closing her eyes. If it was going to attack her, it would happen no matter what she did. There was no sense fretting about when it would be most likely to happen.
With a quiet sigh, she leaned the back of her head against the rough bark behind her and allowed both hands to rest in the thick fur.
She had no concept of time, and she wasn't entirely sure how she finally had fallen asleep. But the next thing she knew, early morning light filled her vision, and a couple of birds chirped along the trees.
Still alive, she thought.
The bear was still there, too, and its eyes were open. The blue of its irises glittered in the first rays of genuine sunshine, and Dina quickly looked away again. Looking animals directly in the eyes wasn't a great idea sometimes, especially large predators.
When the bear lifted its head, Dina let it go straight away, and a sharp feeling of dread curled in her stomach like an angry viper.
But any further spiraling of negative thoughts was squashed when the bear nuzzled at her nose with its own, before licking across her face. The gesture left her stunned all over again, so much so that she almost missed the bear snuffling along her thigh. When she looked down, she watched as the animal lifted its head once more, revealing that it had picked up her knife with its teeth.
It dropped the weapon in her lap, and the only thought reverberating in Dina’s brain was, What the fuck.
Tentatively, she took the knife and slipped it back into her belt, while the bear watched her with its head tilted slightly to the side. There was no aggression whatsoever in its stance, and it only seemed mildly curious as she moved, like it knew exactly what she was doing and what her knife was for.
She was losing her damn mind.
Once her weapon was packed away, she had no idea what to do next.
Thankfully, her furry new friend (at least for the moment) seemed to have an idea, because it nudged at her side and arm until she was on her feet. Even sitting down, the bear towered over her by several inches. Again, it leaned forward and nudged her with its nose, poking the space between her shoulder blades until she started walking. Then, in an even more unexpected move, the big animal snuffled under her arm until she placed her left hand on its broad back, so they could walk next to one another.
Surreptitiously, she pinched her right thigh to make sure she wasn't dreaming, although the pain in her bruised left arm should have been enough to give it away.
“How the fuck,” she whispered to herself, watching as the beast’s giant shoulders moved up and down as it strode onwards. Was she hallucinating or were its steps purposefully slow and small so she could keep up?
Had she hit her head that hard when she’d crashed against the tree?
Steadily, they made their way through the trees, the bear occasionally nudging Dina in slightly different directions, and she’d long since realized that it was leading her somewhere. To its hungry friends, perhaps? But no, surely killing her and dragging along her corpse would have been much faster and more effective in that case.
She almost stumbled when the bear suddenly stopped walking.
“What are you doing?” she asked before she could stop herself, coming to an abrupt halt and looking at the animal. It had sat down, slowly blinking at her. With its nose, it nudged Dina’s stomach, and she instinctively wrapped her arms around its massive head. “There’s nothing here.”
It nudged her again, harder this time, and she let go.
There was a large section of some sort of berry bushes behind her, though they currently bore no fruit. With a furrow in her brows, she made to walk away, but the bear quickly caught up to her and nudged her in the direction of the bushes again.
“Okay, okay,” she whispered, feeling utterly foolish for talking to an animal. “I get it.”
With a sigh, she pushed through a gap in the leaves and walked a couple more steps, her eyes growing larger as she spotted what looked to be a reinforced wall.
Quickly, she started towards it, almost tripping over roots. But when she reached the edge of the trees, she looked back. The bear was looking at her through the bushes, as though it was making sure she made it all the way. With some hesitation, she lifted her hand, but the bear only stared. Shaking her head at herself, she revealed herself to the guards on top of the wall with both of her hands raised.
“Don't shoot,” she said, grabbing their attention without startling them. “I'm not infected. I'm just really, really tired.”
The man to her left shouted for someone to open the gate, and Dina looked back once more.
The bear was gone.